Compost Chores and Garden Cleanup

Notes From the Gardener



As another growing season comes to a close, one of the major garden chores is the cleanup. All the spent plants are brought to the compost for use the following season when it will be returned to the soil. Perennials such as lavender, southernwood and sage are cut back to ground level, where next year's growth is evident on the old wood. What Penny doesn't use on her craft work also goes to the compost. Old squash vines, tomato plants, pepper plants - everything organic goes to the compost.

At first, Penny didn't understand my diligence in gathering organics for compost. She would throw her eyes skyward as I stopped the car at roadsides to put bagged leaves into the trunk. When I berated her for throwing egg shells and coffee grounds into the trash, she was sure I was obsessed. Now, however, Penny is equally diligent for she is schooled in the natural order.

How does one learn such things? By simply being still and observing. For instance, let me relate a recent occurrence. I was gathering together spent plants when I heard the geese overhead. My back needed stretching, so I stood erect and watched a large misshaped "vee" formation of Canada geese split and form two perfectly shaped "vee" groups directly overhead. As my entertainment was passing, a gust of wind drove a leaf so hard against my reddened ear that I "ouched" out loud. This brought my attention to the hundreds of leaves being loosed by the wind and brought to the earth where they were really starting to pile up. The forest floor was thick with them. My wondering brought me to ask where all the leaves went by summer's end. Well, they're eaten, of course. The leaves are actually consumed by a multitude of living things, ranging in size from microbes to earthworms. The leaves then become part of a soil that nurtures the trees above. It was at this point that I realized I was being given a lesson in organic gardening. These oak and pine are some of the largest plants on earth, but they sure don't need any 5-10-5.

When a tree breaks dormancy, the sap flows through its roots deep into the earth and gathers nutrients, delivering them high above to the new growth of leaves. Later the leaves fall. The leaves enrich the soil, the soil feeds the tree. Simple? You bet. I don't need to understand the processes by which organic compounds are broken down or altered. I leave that to those that it interests. My lesson has been this: when living things die they are returned to the soil, which is enriched and may now sustain new life. Simple.

I recall once reading how rains can leach nutrients from the topsoil into the subsoil so deep that they become "lost" or unavailable to plants because their roots just don't reach them. When I think of the depth that a large tree's roots reach into the earth, I realize how much of those "lost" nutrients are recovered and how nutrient laden leaves must be.

Our neighbor has just offered us his leaves again this year. Judging from the size of his place and the size of my truck, this will require numerous trips. Oh well, the thyme can be cut another day. Priorities. Some people shake their heads when they see me stockpiling leaves. I shake mine when I see people burning them.

A few lines from a favorite poem by Robert Frost come to mind.

"..I may load and unload

Again and again

Till I fill the whole shed,

And what have I then?


Next to nothing for weight:

And since they grew duller

From contact with earth,

Next to nothing for color.


Next to nothing for use,

But a crop is a crop,

And who's to say where

The harvest shall stop?"


Drowsy Bumblebees and Johnny-Jump-Ups

Notes From the Gardener



I pause, leaning on my shovel, hearing an unusual sound in the woods. It takes a few moments to realize that I'm hearing the sound of hundreds of wings beating. A flock of blackbirds soon swirls into the clearing, their raucous cries echoing as they light in the oaks out back. A short pause and they're off again, winging over my head. I can actually feel the motion of the air as they pass by on their trek south, like ghosts of summer past.

We have been blessed this year with a long, warm fall. Though frost has done it's job on the tender annuals, and the fiery maple leaves are now at my feet, the sun still holds warmth. It amazes me how quickly the forest changes from a blaze of color to the dreary November brown of dead leaves.

Only the oaks still rustle in the wind now and you can see abandoned birds' nests and the snug homes of squirrels in the treetops. Distances unseen for six months reappear.

But there's a lone dahlia blooming by the front porch and the Cranesbill Geraniums by the drive are still going strong. The Herb Robert's dainty pink flowers can still be found along the rocky edges of the garden beds. The Johnny-Jump-Ups still nod their graceful heads in the sunshine.

I wander over to gaze at the drowsy bumblebees, slowly going to sleep in the asters in the front garden. The bees are so logy that you can pet them, even pick them up and hold them for a moment. Farewell little friends. Your winter sleep is near.

A whiff of smoke tells me a neighbor is burning their pile of leaves. Smells wonderful, but we consider it a sin to waste good mulch and/or compost material in this way. We use as many leaves as we can gather to mulch the pathways and cover any bare soil to prevent erosion. We also add them to the compost piles. Besides, after spending many hours collecting and hauling our treasure, Penny and I have great fun diving face first off the trailer into our leaf mountain. Why should kids have all the fun?

Fall is a time to reflect on the summer past, to plan for next year's garden, to ready oneself for the coming winter months. It's time to mulch the perennials and dig the tender bulbs to store them carefully away. Time to plant the garlic for next year's harvest. Time to harvest the last of the hardy herbs into the drying shed. Time to gather the last of the seedheads for next year's planting. Ill take the time later to spread the wild coneflower seeds hither and yon. It's always a pleasant surprise when they volunteer in odd places.

The days are getting much shorter, the wind is blowing much colder. The heat of the drying shed is a welcome respite from the cold in the shadows. The carefully stacked firewood is a comforting sight. Spring is a long way off.

The long, cold and dreary days of winter will soon be here. Time soon to lounge by the fire and peruse seed catalogues. But for today the sun is warm on my face. I think I'll sit and enjoy it a bit longer.